February 1, 2021
In the winter of 1890, a snowy owl was spotted in New York City’s Central Park—part of what a contemporary account called an “unusual abundance” along the East Coast of the large, strikingly beautiful predators that make their home in the Arctic tundra.
Then came Wednesday morning, January 27.
.A birder who runs the Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert read about an owl sighting on a tracking site and spread the news. “A SNOWY OWL, a mega-rarity for Central Park,” he wrote, “is now in the middle of the North Meadow ball fields.”
The cluster of baseball and softball diamonds might have reminded the owl of its native hunting grounds or the sandy beaches of Queens and Long Island where owls often stop by in the winter.
,In response, the Times says, the hordes came running, cameras and spotting scopes in hand, and, just like that, the snow-white raptor with the thick black bars that mark a young female was the latest instant-celebrity bird of Manhattan.
The episode provided Manhattan bird lovers with a sequel to both Rocky the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree owl from last year and the superstar Mandarin duck that ruled the park and the world’s social-media feeds in 2018.
“Thrilled to share the excitement with fellow birders!!” the user boysenberry45 wrote on Twitter. The crowd itself began to draw a crowd: Supporters of Andrew Yang’s mayoral candidacy showed up with campaign signs.
The owl also got the attention of the park’s avian residents. A flock of crows flew down to harass her and try to drive her out (owls sometimes eat crows). A red-tailed hawk buzzed over her head (hawks are fiercely territorial and do not abide trespassers).
The baseball fields are fenced off in winter to let the grass regrow, so the crush of onlookers was kept a couple of hundred feet away from the owl, but that did not stop at least one person from cheating.
“We had to correct one drone condition,” said Dan Tainow, a Parks Department ranger. “Someone was trying to get that overhead photo,” from about 50 feet in the air, he said. “The owl was aware of it. It was stressing it out.”
Some enthusiasts took Manhattan Bird Alert to task for revealing the bird’s exact whereabouts to 38,000 followers. “Tweeting the locations of a snowy owl to a follower base with a long history of harassing owls is a great look, man,” a user named Aidan Place wrote.
But the birder behind Manhattan Bird Alert, David Barrett, a retired hedge-fund manager who started the account in 2013, said he was performing a public service and building support for conservation efforts.
“If you want people to care about nature,” he said, “you should show them that it’s there and let them appreciate it for themselves.”
By Thursday morning, tired of all of the avian and human attention, the Central Park snowy was nowhere to be found.
Research contact: @nytimes